Friday, August 24, 2018

Knowledge Is Power?

When I was in my early 20's I was a manager with the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce. In that capacity, I had the opportunity to work quite closely with many of the most powerful people in the Puget Sound region: CEOs, presidents, mayors, city council members, and even on a couple of instances, the state governor. It was heady stuff for this young man who envisioned himself one day climbing into their ranks, but as time went on, my enthusiasm waned.

These were undoubtedly powerful people. We would discuss things in meetings, then the next day the newspapers would report them. Buildings, roads, and parks were built where we wanted them to be built. Laws that we deemed necessary would get passed. When the chamber spoke, people didn't just listen, they acted. These people both individually and collectively were powerful, but what surprised and disappointed me was that I didn't find them particularly impressive. I mean, I'd thought I would be moving among the "best and the brightest" when, in truth, I didn't find these people particularly smarter or better educated or more knowledgable. There were a few Einsteins in the bunch, of course, but most of them had apparently risen to power on "talents" that looked more like luck, loyalty, longevity, and the kind of obedient flattery we generally ascribe to sycophants.

Francis Bacon asserted that "knowledge is power." It's something most of us accept without question, especially those of us who work in education. But is it true?

When we say that knowledge is power we (and Bacon) are generally referring to the idea that knowing stuff gives you an advantage over the people who know less stuff: being educated is more powerful than being uneducated and being well-educated is more powerful being simply educated. If this was true, of course, the most powerful people in our society would also be the ones with the most knowledge. That is rarely the case. Indeed, when I look at those controlling the levers of power, be it in government, business, or the arts, I see people who may, in fact, have plenty of drive, but are rarely the most knowledgable. They may have a particular kind of intelligence, but more often than not they didn't acquire it through book learning.

Knowledge is awesome, but it isn't power: the desire for power is what leads to power and those with that drive, if they are to be successful, tend to share more with Niccolo Machiavelli (who connected power with unscrupulous cunning) than Francis Bacon. No, from where I sit, there doesn't appear to be much of a connection between knowledge and power in the way Bacon meant it, in which knowledge equates with education and power with the ability to get others to do what you want. And I'm uncomfortable with any of us "selling" education based upon this flawed assertion.

Self-knowledge, on the other hand, is a different matter. Understanding one's inner life is directly connected to feelings of personal "power," the sort of power that leads individuals not to manipulate others, but rather to seek a life of self-motivation, in which good relationships, emotionally satisfying work, contentment, and even love, are the goals. I've often said that I don't care at all about literacy or mathematics or STEM. My concern is that the children I teach have the opportunity to learn to live in a community; to get their own needs met while also creating space in which others can meet their needs as well; to approach others not with the goal of compulsion, but rather agreement; to cooperate rather than compete; to lift up, not subdue.

Knowledge in the conventional sense is at best the power of being the only one who knows the combination to the safe. And power in the conventional sense is a dubious goal because no matter how benevolently one wields it, it still means bending others to your will, a dark place of winner and loser. Self-knowledge, however, is the path to enlightenment, empathy and understanding, a place where empowerment is the only rational use for power.

As I watch children play together, I often think of my time at the chamber of commerce. I had always wanted to spend my time amongst the best and the brightest, and now I do.

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

No comments: